Monday, December 30, 2019

Thoughts of a recent returnee

10 years into this Cambodia gig, I don't get that much culture shock. I can slip back into life in PA pretty easily. But I still see the US with the eyes of an outsider from time to time. Here are some thoughts I've had that remind me I've been away for a while:

Something brown is scurrying past my feet! A rat? Nope, just an autumn leaf.

That sugar has sat out for HOW long without getting bug-infested?!?

I just drove for hours and never once pondered death. Amazing.

Oh really, your 3-bedroom is cramped for your family of 4? Try telling that to my Khmer friends who co-sleep with 2-4 children.

What does she mean, I put cucumber instead of zucchini in the soup? It was longer than my forearm and had no stripes at all! I’ve never seen a more convincing zucchini! Oops, I forgot cucumbers look like that here.

Voice mailboxes? Those still exist here?

It's so nice being able to blend in and speak my native language with everyone.

Walking on a city sidewalk. Time to be street smart. I know, I’ll switch my purse to the side away from traffic so nobody on a motorcycle can snatch it!

The only foods in this “international” aisle are pasta and tacos. Funny, in Cambodia, I think of those as the American foods.

Hot water showers and sleeping under warm blankets without sweating… this is the life! It’s like a hotel every day!

I guess these could have all gone in the dishwasher, huh.

Am I allowed to flush toilet paper in this public restroom? I don’t see a sign about it.

How do I get the frost off the windshield again? This wouldn’t be a problem if I were driving a motorcycle.

I forgot to bring drinking water upstairs… oh wait, I can drink water out of the bathroom sink! Yes!

Someone just gave me 20 seconds to describe Cambodia. Ugh. Good thing my Khmer friends didn’t have to hear me reduce their country to absolute stereotypes.

Rats, I forgot tissues and my nose is running… oh perfect, I still have a Ziplock full of toilet paper!

Is it cold enough today that I can wear my big coat without getting weird looks?

The neighbors here are so quiet. Out my window I hear no dogs, no music, no cars, nothing.

Oops, I just used the word NGO again. Did I confuse people or can we move on?

Football's on again? Wasn't there a game just yesterday? 

One stop shopping, all the ingredients, all the equipment, no substitutions needed. I love baking Christmas cookies here.

How can these women pretend to be warm while pantless? Leggings do NOT count.

I’m at a red light in an empty intersection after dark. Do I really have to wait?

“Happy birthday Jesus! We decided to kill about 200 million trees and drag them huffing and puffing into our homes!” Americans are so weird.

The commercials! They’re everywhere! And they’re all the same!

Seriously? My parents’ neighbor has a generator for the 3 days a year they lose power? I have no words.

When we told my 4-year-old nephew that Cambodia is far away, he pointed to a mountain and asked if that was it. I wish, kid. I wish.

I’m driving past a cop and I’m not wearing a helmet! He’s going to pull me over! Oh right, I’m in a car.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

What do our holiday treats say about us?

All the best holidays involve food, am I right? If it's an occasion worth remembering, it's worth communing with others around a pile of goodies. Feasting together can trigger deeply treasured memories from holidays past. Special occasions demand special meals. 

I believe the above paragraph generally transcends cultures. But what foods are worthy of immortalizing in time-honored holiday traditions? Ah, that's where the answers splinter into a kaleidoscope of flavors. Indulging in Thanksgiving pie the past five days, I've pondered US and Cambodian holidays and the treats that encapsulate them.

An avid baker and an unpicky eater with a giant sweet tooth, I'm a natural for comparative dessertology. This fall, I was able not only to bake my first-ever pecan pie for Thanksgiving with my family in the US, but also to help make traditional Cambodian snacks for a September holiday called Pchum Ben. Let's see how they compare.

The holiday

Cambodia's Pchum Ben holiday is similar to Mexico's Day of the Dead and the Taoist Ghost Festival. It is said that the dead are released from hell for 15 days in the form of hungry ghosts. It's the job of the living to give food and money to various pagodas, satiating the ghosts' hunger and earning merit so their ancestors can graduate from hell to better afterlives. Nowadays, many people are skeptical that their ancestors roam around craving snacks, but they still gather with relatives - often in their family's home village - to share food with each other and with monks at the pagoda. 

My neighbor and her friends donated food to a pagoda in October (not for Pchum Ben)

Pchum Ben is similar to American Thanksgiving in that tons of people travel to visit family. For many Cambodians in the city, it's one of two trips home per year. Another parallel is that it's a national holiday, strongly tied to cultural identity, albeit with parallel versions in some neighboring countries. Both holidays have deep historical roots: pilgrims and other settlers in the early 1600s gave thanks through feasts with locals before America was a country, and Pchum Ben probably dates back to around 800 AD. 

For both holidays, the religious component is optional. While Pchum Ben has Buddhist and animist roots, other Cambodians also celebrate it minus the pagoda visits, just like Americans of any religious persuasion can chow down on turkey without the pilgrims' desire to thank the God of the Bible. It's worth noting, though, that their religious purposes are nearly opposite: Pchum Ben is all about earning merit to advance your family's spiritual standing, while Thanksgiving celebrates God's grace in giving us good things that we have not earned.

The food and its history

Cambodia - num ansom, num kom

Num is a category of snack food that typically contains rice or flour. Num ansom is boiled and has a fairly mild savory or sweet flavor (depending on the filling), while num kom is steamed with an intensely sweet filling. Unlike other types of num, sold year-round at markets and snack carts, these two are eaten mainly during Pchum Ben and Cambodian New Year. Documents from around 1200 indicate that num ansom represents the Hindu Lord Shiva, while num kom symbolizes his wife Uma, so they were always offered together in religious ceremonies as a symbol of... ahem... unity. That means this pair of treats has been a standard for at least 800 years. Num kom are eaten plain after steaming, whereas you can pan-fry or grill num ansom after boiling them, and the savory ones can be spiced up with sauces. But they're also tasty plain.

Num ansom filled with pork and beans:
my landlords give them to tenants every year

US - pecan pie 
Was pecan pie present 4 centuries ago at the first Thanksgiving? Not a chance. Pecans don't grow in New England, and the pilgrims didn't even have proper ovens, let alone enjoy sweet pies. They would have been more likely to fill any pastries with meat.

In its defense, reading up on its history, I realized pecan (unlike apple) pie is truly American. The nuts are native to North America, and were cultivated by Native Americans. The first pecan pies recipes came from Texas around 1900. It became popular in the 1920s when advertised on the Karo syrup cans, around the time that sweet pie varieties were rapidly proliferating. It's not as classic as pumpkin or apple for Thanksgiving (pies I've often made before), but it's also not uncommon. You can add whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, but it's plenty rich without them.

Ingredients (in descending order of volume)

Cambodia - num

Ansom (outside) - glutinous rice, coconut milk, black beans, salt
Ansom (filling) - pork and yellow mung beans for savory, or small bananas and palm sugar for sweet
Kom (outside) - glutinous rice flour, water
Kom (filling) - grated coconut, palm sugar, black sesame seeds
Wrapping of both: banana leaves, banana strings

Comments: All of these are fresh, simple, and close to their natural state. Many present-day Cambodians are subsistence rice farmers who'd have most of these ingredients growing on their land.

The num kom filling was already cooked over charcoal when we arrived

US - Pecan pie  
Crust - flour, margarine, shortening, kosher salt, sugar, ice water
Filling - pecans, sugar, corn syrup, eggs, margarine, vanilla, salt

Comments: You'll notice this is anything but a health food. I added extra pecans, but there was originally almost a 2:1 ratio of sugar/corn syrup to pecans, not to mention the fat content. I subbed in margarine for butter because my mom is lactose intolerant. But that, shortening, and corn syrup are noteworthy as highly processed 20th-century ingredients that now compete with classics like butter, lard, sugar, and honey. Kosher salt probably wasn't on the pilgrims' menu either. My family's not trendy enough for healthier 21st-century substitutions, but apparently raw vegan chia seed pecan pie is now a thing.

The pilgrims were grateful when the Native Americans
introduced them to Crisco at their local supermarkets

For Pchum Ben, I went along with maybe 12 others from my Khmer church to visit someone's parents, an hour from Phnom Penh. I was surprised to hear that many of them had never made these classic num before, even though they'd eaten them their whole lives. We all looked forward to observing the process. But observing is about all that we did, even the three visitors who, like the hostess, already have grown children. We watched her plunge her hands into large basins of water to stir the beans and rice that had soaked all night. We watched her layer filling on rice on vivid green banana leaves, then deftly roll them into cylinders for num ansom. We watched her neatly fold the smaller banana leaves into perfect pyramids around the num kom

In the 4-hour assembly process, we were allowed to help with just one step in the num ansom: tying the string around the banana leaves wrapping it. For num kom, we were more actively involved forming balls of filling, mixing the flour and hot water for the outside, and folding the banana leaves into pyramids. All of these efforts required her frequent input and supervision. Only she could say when the dough was the perfect consistency. She eventually turned us loose tying up the num ansom but that was a mistake: half of them were too loose, allowing water to seep in and ruin them while boiling. And nobody got the hang of folding up the num kom, even when I took a brief video for us to watch over and over. Whenever someone tried, everyone else would look at it and say, "Nope, that's not right." 

Is the dough sticky enough? Not yet!

We were so proud of ourselves for tying these -
not easy with the brittle string!

If you'd like to make your own, it is possible without waiting for an invite to a Cambodian home. To help you make num ansom, there are now a few YouTube videos and this 23-step recipe (but the 23 steps don't include finding, cleaning, and trimming the banana leaves). Just make sure to leave yourself a whole day, since you'll need at least 6 hours to soak the rice and beans, several hours for assembly, and 3-4 hours to boil them... traditionally in a giant vat over an outdoor fire. (Num kom should be a much shorter process, depending on the batch size.) The recipes I found recommend 15 pounds of rice and 4 bags of beans... friends, these are designed to feed a crowd.

Num kom ready to eat

Making pecan pie is another story. My mom's Betty Crocker cookbook has 8 brief sentences covering all the steps. The last two are "Cool slightly. Serve warm or refrigerate." The previous ones are almost that easy and involve zero guesswork. But if you still feel intimidated, you could watch dozens of videos illustrating the process in as little as 1.5 minutes. The entire pie takes less than 2 hours, mostly waiting for the crust to chill or for the pie to bake. While you can expand it as much as you want, the original recipe makes one pie serving about six people. My family likes to make just one pie of each flavor so we have plenty of variety.

Mmm, leftover pie!


In the US, we celebrate innovation. My search for "pecan pie" showed tons of twists. Our food is more traditional at Thanksgiving than perhaps any other time of year, and even then the newspapers and Internet are bursting with variations to spice up your stuffing or personalize your pies. We're also huge fans of easy, from pre-made crusts to canned filling to pre-ground spices to plain old store-bought pies. The pilgrims' first dinner has become a buttery behemoth, and I wonder what resemblance there will be between my grandparents' Thanksgiving dinners and my grandchildren's as people continue seeking and redefining "progress." 

In Cambodia, broadly speaking, they celebrate conservation. Nearly every family makes the same two snacks (and maybe a few others) every Pchum Ben, as their ancestors have done for nearly a millennium. They use low-tech methods and unprocessed ingredients for treats that are delicious and not that bad for you. I'm no food historian, but to me it seems they've done a remarkable job of preserving this tradition, painstakingly recreating these num with excellence. 

I was a bit concerned when I realized that none of my fellow visitors knew how to make them, though. I've heard about traditional knowledge and abilities dying out when Grandma never passes on her secrets to future generations. A Cambodian neighbor in her 30's asked me recently to show her how to bake bread, and in return I asked if she could let me watch next time she makes num. "Oh, I never make any - they're too much work." She prefers making Khmer puddings, bang aim. 

Num and pie are beloved holiday treats, and as long as there are people needing money, I think there will be people making both. But I wonder how long it will take before they become like croissants, something ordinary folks leave to the professionals. I'd hate to see that happen. Whether num or pie, whether a tradition that stems back 100 years or 1000, whether using purist or pragmatic methods, I find joy in creating and savoring time-honored treats. 

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Things I will (not) miss while in the US

In two short weeks, I'm heading out for my first home assignment with World Team. I've had many other trips to the US since first arriving in Cambodia over ten years ago, but they've never had quite the formality of a "home assignment," and at 3 months long, this trip is the longest ever except when I moved back stateside for grad school.

Whenever I'm in the US, someone asks, "Do you miss Cambodia?" The answer is usually simple: No, I don't. I would miss it if I knew I were never coming back... I eventually miss certain aspects... but usually my times in the US are short enough and seldom enough that I'm too busy soaking up all the things (and people!) I've missed about America.

On this trip, I'm actually expecting to miss several things about Cambodia, such as...

Blissful ignorance of politics. There are plenty of shenanigans around here (try googling "Cambodia news") but little encouragement for anyone to discuss or critique them. I basically never see any news here unless I go online and seek it out, which is embarrassingly rare. It's harder to hide in America. I'm a big fan of democracy and free speech, but they sure are messy. The primaries were not a "primary" reason for my trip timing.

The simplicity and focus of Christmas. Churches here have a big joyous celebration and outreach, and malls play some carols and too many renditions of "Last Christmas." Some kids wear Santa hats to school on the 25th, but it's a pretty normal day. I know almost no Khmer who exchange presents, though some kids receive shoe boxes via Operation Christmas Child. I'm so excited for family togetherness and way too many cookies and a real tree and the other Christmas traditions I've missed, but in Cambodia, missing those things always takes me back to Jesus.

The weather. Don't get me wrong, I'm delighted to catch a bit of fall and winter... I love having four seasons and a break from sweating. But yesterday it got down to 80, and I started shivering. My system is in for a shock in PA. Cambodia's nicest (coolest) weather comes in December and January, and by my return in mid-February the temps will probably be climbing again into the inferno that is March through May. I wouldn't mind some "happy medium" days.

The longer I live here in Cambo, the more items drift from "major irritation" to "barely noticeable." The barking dogs on my street, the constantly wet bathroom floor, the smell of fish and meat at the market, the flow of traffic... they rarely feel stressful anymore. There's a lot that I enjoy about Cambodian culture. I'm in a decent place emotionally, relatively well-rested, not planning to collapse onto the plane in a puddle of tears like I have after some school years. However, as my teammates Jeannie and Pat put it, knowing I'm about to leave always makes me feel a bit "crispy," over-toasted by Cambodia's constant sensory input. It sparks my internal tally of reasons I want a break from here.

Here are a few things I can guarantee I will NOT miss:

Mosquitoes. Need I say more?

Drunk karaoke wafting through my window. PSA: Alcohol may improve your confidence, but not your vocal abilities. And though maxing out the amp volume may distract your friends from noticing your voice quality, it will achieve no such miracles for the neighbors in a four-block vicinity. Many Cambodians have lovely voices. But they are not the only ones who belt out ballads when I'm trying to work or sleep. Or blog. (Creepy... it's like I summoned them by writing this paragraph!)

Fumes and rays. Some days, driving my moto around town feels like skin cancer and lung cancer are competing to see which can take me out first. (Assuming other drivers don't.) Sunscreen, long sleeves, a stylish purple air mask, and my helmet's tinted visor can't defeat the black clouds of hot exhaust billowing at me from the truck in front of me at the red light, or the blinding sun that reflects off the concrete roads and buildings to hit me every which way at once. I'm looking forward to a few months of errands that don't leave me dusty, sweaty, red-faced, and holding my breath.

Look what one year of driving, not even daily, has done to the sleeves. 

Mockery. Recently I went for a massage. I was a paying customer; her job was literally to make me happy. But after asking my age and marital status, she snickered at my reply the way I would snicker if someone asked me to sign a petition to save the endangered unicorns. I wish I could say she was unique. At least she didn't press the conversation like others have. Sometimes this lands in the "totally fine now" category. Sometimes it doesn't.

Monocultural people sometimes think countries are on a spectrum of politeness. Is Cambodia more or less polite than America? The answer is no. Cambodian culture has much higher standards of politeness than American culture in some regards, and much lower in others. Comments and questions about people's marital status, number of children, weight, skin color, and salary are considered harmless here. In fact, to demonstrate in February that they've missed me, I'm sure many of my friends will say things like, "You've gained weight" or "You're paler than before." On the other hand, as mentioned above, they're very tolerant of karaoke singers with mediocre voices. They hardly ever show anger or road rage. And in helping me prepare my recent teacher training seminars, my tutor wouldn't let me address the teachers as plain old "you," even though they were younger than me and had less training. In respect for their title and position, I had to say "lokru nakru" (Mr. Teacher and Ms. Teacher) every time I addressed the group. Definitions of politeness vary widely across cultures, and while I've come a long way in accepting this reality, it's still nice occasionally to be somewhere that the rules feel intuitive.

I'm hopeful that by February, I'll be reinvigorated and ready for these challenges again. None of them are new; none of them are insurmountable; none of them make me want to scream (anymore... most days...). But I'm glad to have a break from them. And I might need to remind myself of them when I'm in Pennsylvania with nosebleeds and blue fingers, surrounded by "Christmas-y" materialism and political vitriol, and haven't seen the sun in days.

Stumped for questions when I visit you? Don't just ask IF I miss Cambodia... ask WHAT I'm missing (or not!) that day.

Monday, September 30, 2019

On maybe losing a home, and finding one

She just wanted to keep her home. As a result, she might lose everything.

In the two years that I've known "Raksmey," I’ve heard a lot about her legal dispute with her brother, a dispute she inherited from her dad when he passed away four years ago. Through multiple court levels and appeals, they’ve tried to establish whether her late father’s estate belongs to her brother exclusively or whether 40% is Raksmey’s, as their dad’s will stated. In the process, they’ve both gone deeply into debt. Now it’s headed to the supreme court for a final decision.

Her brother already has a house, next to the home where Raksmey spent many years with her dad. For most of that time, she and her brother were close and loving. But when the contentions turned nasty, her brother poured concrete in her pipes, padlocked her door, and cut her power lines, forcing her out into a small rented room.

Since then, Raksmey has fought desperately to get her home back, knowing that while the law is on her side, connections and cash determine the winner. Lately, I think she’s continued largely in hopes of selling the house to repay her court debts. (Another Khmer friend has recent experience with loan sharks. Not fun.)

Though a naturally cheerful person, Raksmey has often poured out her latest woes. Her brother’s cruel jibes. Her lawyer’s flaky cancellations. Her apprehensions of losing everything. Sometimes I'm impatient to move onto the main agenda for our meetings, but it’s good Khmer listening practice for me. And despite my task-oriented personality, I want to be there for her. I just don't have much encouragement to offer her apart from Jesus. So when she winds down, sometimes I just nod sympathetically. But often I say, “Wow, that’s really tough. Can I pray for you right now?” or “Your story reminds me of a Bible verse. Let’s read it together.”

She always lets me, and says that she prays on her own too. But she’s never had an answer when I ask, "What is God reminding you of through this difficulty?" Nor have my verses or prayers seemed to help. Despite over a decade of identifying as Christian, she had a falling-out with her church a few years back and has lost touch with other Khmer believers. I encouraged her to read the Bible, on her phone if needed, but she always said her Bible was locked into her dad’s house with all her other possessions, and that was the only Bible she wanted to read. 

On the rare occasions that she brought up God, she’d express things like “God helped me forgive my brother” or “God wants me to avoid temptation”: duty, not comfort in knowing Christ. Trying to be strong alone, she was slipping into bitterness and cynicism. She didn’t just need financial security – she needed inner peace and restored relationships. Though amazed at her tenacity, I couldn’t imagine how she was enduring all this stress while disconnected from God’s love for her. I wanted her to know the power of God’s promises and God’s family to support her. I knew I wasn't the only foreigner listening to and praying for her, but it felt fruitless and gloomy.

Two weeks ago, Raksmey took nearly an hour to fill me in. She told me how deeply her brother has wounded her heart over the years and how much I've meant to her as a supportive listener. She’s painfully aware that the upcoming decision could ruin her life on multiple levels. Before, there was always a ray of hope: another appeal, another lawyer, another high-up acquaintance who could maybe be persuaded to advocate for her. Soon, there will be nothing more to do. Vulnerability oozed from her words. What could I say to her that I hadn’t already said? 

I read Philippians 4:19 to her: “My God will provide all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” And I prayed, “Lord, You were there with Joseph when his brothers enslaved him, when he lost everything, when he went to prison. You never abandoned him, but You used his suffering to save many lives during the famine. Please be with Raksmey and use her suffering too. Provide all her needs according to Your wisdom. What her brother intends for evil, please use for good, just like you did with Joseph. You're more powerful than her brother, or the judge, or anyone on earth.” (Well, that's what I tried to say, only in Khmer so I sounded like a 5-year-old.)

The verse left her unmoved, and there was nothing new in my prayer. I was ready to call it a day, since our time was up. But after the amen, she looked at me. “Thank you so much, Chelsea. You really encouraged me just now. Joseph’s brothers tried to kill him – they were even worse than my brother – but God stuck with him. God’s the good dad who kept loving His runaway child and welcomed that child back home. I need God in my life. Your prayer reminded me of this worship song I used to love…” 

Wait, what? Am I hearing her right? I showed her Genesis 50:20, where Joseph says God used his brothers' evil intentions for good, and messaged both verses to her phone so she could re-read them later. When she mentioned wanting to start reading the Bible again, I asked her, “If I buy you a Bible, will you read it?” 


I left that meeting very encouraged, but still a bit skeptical if it indicated real change. Would she stay spiritually open, or was she just extra emotional that day? Was she just trying to get God on her side to win the court case, or would she trust Him regardless? Would she really read a Bible if I bought one for her? 

I apologized when I met her last week. “I didn’t make it to the Christian bookstore this week, but I'll get you a Bible soon if you’d like.” 

“Sure, but no hurry. I started reading the Bible on my phone. Your prayer the other day has encouraged me so much. I know I need God's Word.” 

Whoa. She's already reading on her own, after all that insisting she didn't like online Bibles? I'd been thinking if I bought her one, maybe she'd read it just feeling she owed it to me. I'd never expected this!

Today, Raksmey was delighted to see her new Bible. She gave me permission to share her story, and reiterated with a broad smile how thankful she is to have "woken up" two weeks ago to God's presence. She'd long felt lost in fear and despair, but now she feels peaceful and ready for any outcome in court. She's been reflecting on Joseph's endurance through twenty years of hardship before ending up a powerful leader, restored to his family. Likewise, she knows she can trust God and receive His strength for whatever's ahead. She can see His goodness in people who pray for and encourage her.

I told her what I've been mulling over. Like Joseph, Raksmey has lost her home, her father, even her relationship with her brother. And her losses might continue to mount, as his did. But in Christ, she can receive a home, a Father, and a spiritual family far better and more permanent than any other. None of her suffering will be wasted; all of it will be part of a bigger story. Whatever happens to her dad's estate in court, Raksmey has a guaranteed and glorious inheritance.

Monday, August 26, 2019

The worm, the crow, and the challenges of cross-cultural storytelling

Pop quiz: 

Match the sentences to the genre in which you might find them.

1. And they all lived happily ever after.
2. Press 1 for English and 2 for Spanish.
3. She has demonstrated superior critical thinking, organization, and attention to detail.
4. So good to see you again! You look great!
5. "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." 

a. Greeting a visiting friend 
b. Phone recording for a government service
c. Opening line of a dystopian novel (William Gibson's Neuromancer)
d. College recommendation letter
e. Fairy tale closing

Not too hard, was it? In case you need help, answers are at the bottom. But these lines would sound pretty odd if you shuffled them around between those five contexts.

A recent language coaching class encouraged us to help our advanced learners notice discourse. Discourse means the structure or shape of a text or conversation. What kinds of phrases and sentences are used to open, develop, and close it? What markers indicate its genre? A court testimony and a fairy tale are both narratives, but you wouldn't start a court testimony with "Once upon a time." 

Languages can have diverse expectations for what makes each genre sound "right" and natural. If I assume my second language has the same discourse patterns as my first, what can happen? 
  • I might miss cues that someone is trying to end a conversation, or feel unsure how to do so myself. (Hanging up the phone with a Khmer speaker used to be so awkward for me!)
  • I might persuade in a way that doesn't sound persuasive. (I read that Japanese students are taught to sound hesitant and acknowledge other viewpoints to reflect their humility in a large and complicated world. By contrast, American essay writers are taught to say "My viewpoint IS the truth." This divergence can cause confusion and discomfort in ESL writing courses.) 
  • I might communicate information that I see as organized and clear, but my audience finds difficult to follow or process.
Image from ThoughtCo
As with several other coaching suggestions, I knew I needed to grow here in my own language learning, so I decided to give it a try. One area where I'd like to grow is in storytelling. What makes people want to listen? So I chose a Buddhist folk tale in Khmer​, one that I'd once watched in class, and instead of just reading it for comprehension, I picked it apart, trying to understand every word. Then I examined how the words combined into sentences, paragraphs, and story. 

My analysis had three stages: 
1. Very literal translation
2. Somewhat literal translation
3. Non-literal translation

That way, I could compare the Khmer structure to a comparable English structure for folk tales. It was sometimes hard to find 1-to-1 correspondences of English and Khmer words, and even the most literal translation still loses shades of meaning in Khmer. But these three stages will give you an indication of potential differences between stories in the two languages. (You probably don't want to read all of the very literal translation, so I'm just including the beginning to give you an idea.)

1. Very literal translation:

Story Worm and Crow

Even this version still adds capitalizations and spaces between words, neither of which exist in the original Khmer except where I’ve used the Tab function below. Khmer spaces are wider than English ones and work more like commas - I'm still not sure why this story uses commas in some places instead of spaces in the original text.

Have story one say     worm eating leaf      have crow one fly seek food go to notice with worm that. Crow say “Time this have luck get worm eat” and fly go near worm. Worm look see crow also realize say “Self, (impolite) crow this heart brutal      will stab me eat now already.” Worm ask crow say “Come seek what?”. Crow tell go to worm back say “I come eat worm you.” Worm say “When only crow you seek riddle me find then eat me can, if seek riddle me not find eat me not can not.” Crow ask that “Riddle worm you way like what ask come descend I will seek give find.” Worm ask go to crow like have continue go to this:
1 - Like what which they call say sweet more than they most?
2 -  Like what which they call say sour bitter/unripe more than they most?
3 - Like what which they call say stinky more than they most?
4 - Like what which they call say fragrant more than they most?

Whew, does your brain hurt yet? OK, let's look at the intermediate version, where I tried to use correct grammar but stay as possible to the Khmer discourse structure.

Somewhat literal, yet grammatical, translation: 

“The Story of Worm and Crow”

I put in paragraph breaks, quotation marks, question marks, and periods only where they exist in Khmer. I changed verb tenses where appropriate and added some of the following to make it flow better:
  • commas and semicolons
  • articles [a/an/the] 
  • subjects for verbs
  • conjunctions like “and” & “but” 
I've marked these additions in red in the first paragraph and left the spaces in to give you an idea. 

There is one tale saying     
a worm was eating a leaf     one crow flew looking for food; it went and spotted with that worm. The crow said, “This time have luck and get the worm to eat” and flew near the worm. The worm looked, saw the crow and recalled saying, “This stupid brutal-hearted crow      will stab me to eat now already.” The worm asked the crow saying, “What do you come seeking?”. The crow told to the worm back saying, “I came to eat the worm, you.” The worm said, “Only when, Crow, you seek my riddle and find it, then you can eat me; if you seek my riddle and do not find ityou can’t eat me.”

The crow asked saying, “What’s your riddle, worm, go ahead and ask me and I’ll figure it out.” The worm asked the crow the following:

1.    How do they call that which is sweet more than anything, most of all?
2.    How do they call that which is sour more than anything, most of all?
3.    How do they call that which is stinky more than anything, most of all?
4.    How do they call that which is fragrant more than anything, most of all?

When the crow had heard the worm ask all four riddles already, he had the most joy and shouted excitedly and playfully, thinking saying, “All four of the worm’s four riddles, I sought and found and can eat this worm without missing out,” so the crow answered and solved the riddle in the following way.

1.    That which they call sweet most of all, that is sugar and honey, sweeter than anything.
2.    That which they call sour most of all, that is sour lime soup, tamarind, sandan fruit soup, and vinegar.
3.    That which they call stinky most of all, that is poop and all types of animal carcasses.
4.    That which they call fragrant most of all, that is magnolia, jasmine, and perfume.
5.    Crow has solved all four of these riddles, he told the worm.

The worm said “Crow has solved the riddles incorrectly.” So Crow looked gloomy saying back to the worm, “Worm, if you say it’s wrong, please tell me these riddles’ answers so I’ll know.” The worm replied to the crow saying “I can tell you, but crow, don’t eat me once I tell you.” The crow said “Just go ahead and tell me, I won’t eat you.” Once they had agreed together in this way, the worm solved the riddles and told them to the crow, like the following words:
  1. That which they call sweet most of all, that is not really sugar or honey sweet, but sweet words spoken back and forth with each other through melodious, faithful words toward each other. This is what is called the sweetest.
  2. That which they call sour and bitter most of all, that is not really sour and bitter tamarind, sandan fruit soup, lime soup, or vinegar, but vulgar, cruel, impolite, inappropriate words spoken back and forth with each other. This is what is called sour and bitter beyond all else.
  3. That which they call stinky, that is not really stinky poop or a stinky carcass, but a foul reputation and name of an evildoer. This is exactly what is called “putrid even upwind.”
  4. That which they call fragrant, that is not really the fragrant scent of a flower or perfume, but a fragrant reputation and name of an innocent person doing good, this is exactly what is called “fragrant more than any fragrant spice.”

The crow, having listened to all these riddles, then stopped eating the worm and went.

Small but really true, like a sparkling diamond.

It's a lot more understandable than the first story. But would you buy a book of stories like this to read with your kids? Me neither.

Finally, since I couldn't find a comparable English version, here's my best shot at fitting it into English discourse patterns for folk tales. Red indicates places where I changed the wording to sound more like an English folk tale:

“The Worm and the Crow”

A worm was once eating a leaf when a crow flew overhead, hunting for food, and spotted the worm. The crow told himself, “I’m in luck: this worm will be an easy target!” and dove toward the worm. 

Looking up, the worm spotted the crow and realized, “This rotten brutal-hearted crow is about to gobble me up!” So she asked the crow, “What do you want?” 

The crow replied, “I’m here to claim you as my dinner!” 

The worm said, “OK, fine, you can eat me… but only after you solve my riddles.”

“Go ahead, what are they? I know I’ll get them right,” the crow responded cockily.

So she proceeded to ask the crow: 

1.    "What’s the sweetest thing in the world?
2.    What’s the sourest, most bitter thing in the world?
3.    What’s the stinkiest thing in the world?
4.    What’s the most fragrant thing in the world?"

Hearing these riddles, the crow let out a gleeful caw. He thought to himself, “These are easy. This worm is mine for sure!” He told the worm:

1.    "The sweetest things in the world are sugar and honey.
2.    The sourest, most bitter things in the world are sour lime soup, tamarind, sour fruit soup, and vinegar.
3.    The stinkiest things in the world are poop and all animal carcasses.
4.    The most fragrant things in the world are magnolias, jasmine flowers, and perfume.
5.    I’ve solved all four of your riddles!”

“Not so fast!” she replied. “Your answers are wrong.”

The crow looked crestfallen. “Wrong, you say? Then please tell me the right answers so I’ll know.”

“I’ll tell you, but you can’t eat me afterward,” said the brave little worm.

The crow answered, “As long as you tell me, I won’t eat you.”

Satisfied by their agreement, the worm revealed the riddles’ solutions:

1.    "The sweetest thing in the world isn’t sugar or honey, but a sweet conversation filled with musical, faithful words. That’s what’s really the sweetest.
2.    The sourest, most bitter thing in the world isn’t a food like tamarind, sour fruit, lime, or vinegar, but a conversation full of vulgar, cruel, impolite, and unseemly words. That’s the sourest, most bitter thing of all.
3.    The stinkiest thing in the world isn’t poop or carcasses, but an evildoer’s foul reputation and name. That’s what you call 'so putrid you can smell it upwind.'
4.    The most fragrant thing in the world isn’t the scent of a flower or a perfume. It’s the sweet-smelling reputation and name of an upstanding citizen, 'more fragrant than any spice.'”

With this wisdom ringing in his ears, the crow left the worm alone and flew off.

This story is short but profound, like a sparkling diamond.

Here are some differences I noticed:

  • In some places, the Khmer was much shorter than the English; in other places, much longer. We have different conventions for what needs to be spelled out and what can be inferred. 
  • In Khmer, people prefer to restate the nouns often because pronouns get really confusing. Even pronouns like "you" often had the animal's name in front of it. 
  • Sometimes Khmer and English differ on where subjects are required for verbs. 
    • Here English but not Khmer requires a subject: "This time have luck" vs. "This time have luck/I'm in luck" 
    • Here Khmer requires a subject: "When the crow had heard the worm ask all four riddles already, he had the most joy and shouted excitedly and playfully." vs. "Hearing these riddles, the crow cried out with delight."
  • I spotted differences in how Khmer uses punctuation: no exclamation points in the original (I added six), fewer mid-sentence pauses (whether commas or spaces), some surprises with question marks. 
  • Khmer often adds the word "say" after verbs that imply it, like "reply" or "ask." 
  • There were specific phrases to begin the story and to ask and answer about superlatives, "the ___est thing," which never used "in the world" like English might. Likewise, there was a specific phrase signalling "in the following way," which often could be left out in the English translation, but which I've heard in other Khmer stories. 
  • This story had less action than I anticipated. I thought the crow would try to get out of the deal and eat the worm anyway. But my tutor said she was surprised too, and the video included a scene with him lunging and her scurrying underground, so maybe that's not a broader pattern.
  • There's no moral at the end, just a statement praising the story's value. The worm says the morals out loud during the story. These morals definitely reflects Khmer values of harmonious relationships and preserving one's reputation. English folk tales often have just one moral.
  • The moral part has a satisfying parallelism with the opposites of sour/sweet and stinky/fragrant. But in English we'd probably have one wrong answer per question, where the crow gives four or five for some of them. 
Understanding the Khmer took some dictionary work and some help from my tutor. But it wasn't really that hard to translate it into English, even English that sounds kinda like a traditional folk tale. Imagine the opposite, though. Could I take a story I know and translate it into Khmer? Getting it to that intermediate stage, grammatical correctness, is a long way from telling a smooth story that would captivate listeners. I hope to ask more people about what lines or phrases in the original Khmer sound great, are mainly used in folk tales, or should be imitated in my own stories. For now, my goal is oral storytelling, which is both easier for me and more useful in my daily life than writing. But still, getting to Story 3 in Khmer takes a lot of familiarity with strong examples of that genre. 

Realizing this gives me more sympathy for international friends whose logic I can't always follow well. It gives me sympathy for myself as I struggle week after week to understand Khmer sermons, or to tell non-boring stories in Khmer. And it gives me a whole lot of respect for bilingual Khmer friends who bridge the gap in understanding and/or translating for non-Khmer speakers. It also motivates me to keep reading and listening. Khmer discourse is different from English discourse, but it's not random, and the variations aren't infinite. There are patterns to it that I can hunt for and grow into over time. And when I do? I'll be a much better communicator... in Khmer, anyway.

Pop quiz answers: 1. e    2. b   3. d    4. a   5. c